The following article is a guest post courtesy of Geoff Upchurch. You can follow him on Twitter @GeoffUpchurch.
Almost everyone can quote the beginning of it, even if they don’t know the rest of the line, the title of the book, or the author:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
Now, with the Blues sitting a win away from winning the first Stanley Cup in team history, the line becomes more fitting with each passing comma.
It seems almost a lifetime ago that Doug Armstrong won the offseason, scooping up Tyler Bozak, bringing David Perron home (again!), and then, in a fit of madness, convincing Buffalo to take spare parts, Tage Thompson, and a first round pick for Ryan O’Reilly. Afterwards, he put the cherry on top by getting Pat Maroon to agree to a low-cost, one-year deal to come play in his hometown.
A team that hadn’t been good enough the previous season, failing to qualify for the postseason, had been reshaped. Was it enough to become a true contender? Maybe, maybe not. But the call between Armstrong and O’Reilly after the trade was announced resonated: “Let’s go win a Cup.”
Then, as with so many stories both fictional and true, adversity struck.
Stumbling out of the gate to a 3-4-3 record at the end of October, the wait was on for the team to find its footing. Concern hadn’t truly set in yet, but the team’s play could be generously described as uneven, and certainly not living up to the expectations generated during the offseason. As a 12-game plan holder, I’d seen two losses in person.
November offered no respite from the peaks-and-valleys approach to the season, and the last Saturday game of the month, against Winnipeg, put an exclamation point on the valleys side of the ledger. I was privileged, if you can call it that, to have been in the arena for that game – an 8-4 shellacking that saw Laine challenging to tie Berenson’s mark of six goals in a single game. I found myself sitting there next to my father, in an arena emptying out well before the final horn, wondering if I was seeing the Blues adding to some other player’s legend in real time. A far cry from expecting the team to return to the playoffs, much less be a true contender. “Let’s go win a Cup” had quietly shuffled out of the picture entirely. My record in attendance had fallen to 0-3-1 on the year, and the team was scuffling along at 8-11-3.
Surely, the game against Winnipeg was the low point of the season, I thought. Instead, December brought more of the same. The Blues wins were mostly close ones, while teams periodically piled on with ridiculously crooked numbers. Arizona started the month by spiking the Blues for 6 goals, in a game that felt like it could’ve easily gotten even further out of hand. The two games on my personal docket were the 9th against Vancouver (winnable, even for this team?) and the 16th against Calgary (this could be bad).
Vancouver simply turned out to have the Blues number in December, winning two games by a combined score of 11-2. Vancouver. Everyone *expected* them to be an also-ran going in to the year. And here they were, murdering a listless Blues team up and down the ice twice in the span of a week and a half. Calgary, while perhaps a more expected loss, shelled the Blues 7-2. Halfway through the 12-game pack, I’d yet to witness a Blues win in person. But I’d seen some truly horrendous hockey.
It was the winter of despair.
Plenty of fans had shifted into full “Lose for Hughes!” expectations as the calendar turned over. I feel no shame in admitting that I was one of them. For whatever reason, the team simply wasn’t coming together. Aside from O’Reilly, Barbashev, and Sundqvist, plus or minus the hard work for no reward of Jaden Schwartz, it looked for all the world like a lost season for the whole roster. At 15-18-4 on January 1, the Blues were trailing the league, albeit with games in hand. The problem with games in hand, of course, being that you have to win them for them to matter, and the expectation that the Blues would do any serious, sustained winning this season could best be described as a pipe dream.
At this point, I had no expectations left for the team. As a hockey fan, all I had left was to hope that I’d see good hockey out of somebody on a given night, even if it was the other team. The 4-3 loss to the Islanders on the 5th of January wasn’t surprising, though it was at least a reasonably contested game. I won’t say it felt like progress, but after attending three consecutive blowouts by the visitors, it was a nice change of pace all the same.
A week later, the Blues sent an email with the subject line: “Enjoy a Blues game – on us!” Funny, I thought, given the way the season had gone, given the way that even weekend games weren’t being fully attended after some truly atrocious hockey on Saturdays and Sundays in STL. “This is going to be weekday games that they can’t manage to get sold with the team this bad, isn’t it?” Sure enough, the slate was a bunch of Tuesdays, and maybe a Wednesday. Nothing really stood out at first glance – my dad has a standing engagement on Tuesdays during the hockey season, he was unlikely to be able to go no matter what game I picked. So, I picked the only obvious choice, in the full expectation that the Blues were going to get run out of the barn: The quarter-zip pullover giveaway night against the Maple Leafs on February 19th. Hey, it’s free hockey, with a giveaway to boot. I may as well.
But first, the 12-game weekend plan served up the Battle of the Garbage Dump. Blues versus Senators, the battle for most atrocious dumpster fire in the league. It was an ugly, sloppy, 3-2 game that either team could’ve won, and neither team deserved to win. Two points are two points, and a win is a win, though the play reinforced the idea that this was the team the Blues were this season: Not merely also-rans, bottom-of-the-barrel also-rans, struggling to scrape wins even against other teams of their ilk.
I thought nothing of the 5-1 win over Anaheim four nights later, the last game before the CBA-mandated bye week. Even the lowest team in the league still gets points every now and again, after all. The wins coming out of that break in February felt similar. Scrappy showings against Columbus and Florida, and then outright goaler theft in the 1-0 OT winner over the Lightning. Even the best team in the league gets blanked every once in a while, after all. It was a nice little run, thought I, but the weekend home-and-home with Nashville would put paid to it being anything more than that. Win one? Maybe, the team seems to be on a bit of a hot streak. Win both? That’s an awfully tall order, even for good teams, but they did it anyway. I’d seen too much terrible hockey to start holding out hope, but maybe that game against the Leafs might not be a total train wreck after all.
And the wins just kept coming. A blitzing of the Devils, in what felt like the first statement win of the season, followed by three consecutive shutouts on a three-game road trip to tie the team’s franchise-longest winning streak at 10 games. Still I didn’t buy in. The Sabres had a 10-gamer early on in the season, and their fans were insufferably certain that they’d won the O’Reilly trade outright. On February 19th, those same Sabres lost their third in a row, and fourth in their last five, to fall to 28-24-7, no longer on the torrid pace with which they’d started the season. Teams have hot streaks though they eventually settle to their level. Three weeks of winning is nice, but when it stares three months of worst-in-the-league hockey in the face, it can’t help but pale a bit in comparison. The Blues came to the barn that night and made team history, pulling out the overtime win against a Leafs team that was busy proving itself one of the teams to watch down the stretch and into the playoffs. A nice note in an otherwise forgettable season to that point.
Four nights later, I was back in the arena, having dusted off my previous-era third jersey, with the circular crest and the arch, rejoicing in a C on the front, and BACKES 42 on the back. The Stars had ended the winning streak two nights prior, but the belief that maybe there was winning hockey to be seen on the weekend was back all the same. Little did I know that the 2-1 shootout winner was but a taste of things to come.
March opened with the Bunch of Jerks (Goodnight, sweet prince) and the Stars taking games from the Blues in convincing fashion, and the scrapping and clawing for a playoff spot was on in truth. Friends were asking the the same questions I was hearing on sports talk radio: “Can the Blues really make the playoffs?” “Is the season a success if they make the playoffs?” I responded the same way every time. “I’ve seen this team at its worst, and I’ve seen it at its best. I have no idea what happens next.” The batch of games between that Stars game and the last regular-season weekend plan game against the Lightning bore that out in classic Jekyll and Hyde Blues fashion, both wins and losses against bad teams, with a solid win against the Penguins right in the middle.
That last regular season game in attendance was easily the most entertaining one of the year. The Blues potted three goals in under a minute and a half in the first period, and the Lightning roared right back in the second and third, nearly tying the game in the dying minutes but for an offside challenge calling back an otherwise good goal. Heading out of the arena, I half-jokingly said to the Lightning fan who’d been sitting behind me all game, “Inject a seven-game series of this right into my veins.” Not in any expectation that the Blues would make that happen, but the game had *felt* like a playoff game, and the team that had gone from high expectations in the offseason to “Lose for Hughes” by January hadn’t looked out of place at all against the team that was running away with the Presidents’ Trophy and was already the consensus pick for Cup Champs.
“Let’s go win a Cup”, eh? Okay, fine, get in the playoffs and I suppose anything can happen for a team that beat Tampa twice this season.
Somewhere along the way, I’d imbibed Coach Berube’s even-keel not-too-high, not-too-low mantra. I’d accepted as true the essence of Jordan Binnington‘s “Do I look nervous?” For lack of a better term, I’d taken to calling it a Zen feeling as the playoffs started on the road in Winnipeg. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s St. Louis Blues. A team equally capable of crapping the bed and blowing an opponent right out of the barn. Schrodinger’s Blues. Which team is in the box? Come to the arena and find out!
Winning two games on the road in Winnipeg wasn’t really surprising at this point. The team was totally capable of it. Losing the next two at home, including one in crushing 6-3 fashion, was no more surprising. The boys were totally capable of that, too. Win Game 5 on the road? Eh, why not? Now who’s nervous? The Blues are imminently capable of winning one of the next two, or losing them both. Okay, they won Game 6 and are basically playing with house money. We’ll just see how far the ride goes.
It was the spring of hope.
Winnipeg was built deep up front, with more scoring threats than you could conveniently shake a stick at, but their defensive play and goalie were a bit suspect. Dallas was a whole different kettle of fish: A top line, and then a bunch of guys, but their defense was incredibly stingy and Blues fans were already well-acquainted with Vezina Trophy Candidate Ben Bishop. The Stars had won three of the four regular-season meetings in convincing fashion, but so had the Jets. In my mind, they were still Schrodinger’s Blues – we’d just keep opening the box and discovering which team we got until the series ended. Win Game 1. Not too high. Lose Game 2. Not too low. Win Game 3. Still not too high. Lose Game 4. Still not too low. Lose again in Game 5. Do I look nervous? Nah. Win Game 6. Now we’ve got one more chance to open the box. Go up a goal. Not too high. Puck deflects off the ref to Zuccarello all alone in front for a goal against. Okay, that’s a crazy bounce. Not too low. St. Louisan Maroon gets to a loose puck behind St. Louisan Bishop and pokes it home for the series winner in double overtime? It’s not a miracle, but it belongs in a storybook somewhere. The Hallmark Channel might reject the premise as too cliche, but it is what it is.
Now, who has a taste for revenge? A dish best served cold, in a game played on ice. The Sharks had the better record. They had the star players. They had Joe Thornton in what was speculated as his last shot at the Cup. The oddsmakers certainly liked their chances. They were a ready-made media darling, with the bonus chance to go back to the Final by beating the Blues, just like they had in 2016, when they were too strong, too fast, too skilled, and won the series in six games, though they probably could’ve won it sooner. It wasn’t that close.
There’s just one problem with that. Schrodinger’s Blues. Or are they, anymore? How do you measure the speck in the rear-view mirror that was the horrible first half of the season against the second half, where the Blues were in the top of the league in points, and two rounds of resilient playoff wins, bouncing back from bad games to play and win another day?
The Sharks win Game 1 6-3, and everyone writing and buying the narrative pat themselves on the back. The Blues should just be happy to have made it this far. It was a good run, but the Sharks are the better team. Thornton will get his shot at the Cup. Still not too low. I’ve seen this 6-3 thing already this playoffs, and to borrow from Kelly Chase, “Hey buddy, we’re still here.”
The Blues win Game 2 4-2 to tie the series. Eh, it’s just a blip. Happens in hockey from time to time, don’t ya know. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, or that team that keeps bouncing back after what look like awful losses.
Game 3 looks like the whole season, miniaturized to fit in a single game format and to run in the time allotted. The Sharks with two goals in the first look to make a laugher of it, then the Blues turn on with four goals forced to only one against in the second, battle down to the wire, go to OT on a late 6-on-5 goal against… And then the hand pass. Sitting in the opposite end, with a view obstructed by three layers of glass, I didn’t catch the hand pass in real time at all. Walking back to the car, it just seemed like an overtime loss. Them’s the breaks in sudden death overtime. But listening to the post-game regarding the hand pass, and then player interviews on the drive home told another story. “I’m not gonna say any more about it,” said Alex Pietrangelo. “That’s fine, you guys can talk about it. We’re gonna get ready for game four,” said Alex(ander) Steen. “Did it appear? Yeah, it was. But let’s move forward, and that’s what we’re gonna do in the next 24 hours,” said David (not Alex?) Perron.
Wouldn’t you know it, not only did they put it behind them, they went right back to their game and took game four as a result. And then games 5 and 6, for good measure.
At that point, it had the feeling of unreality to it. The St. Louis Blues, playing in the Stanley Cup Final. The last time that happened, my dad was 20. I wouldn’t even be born for another decade. Yet here it was, getting ready to start.
“Let’s go win a Cup.”
Five days off felt like an eternity. I can only imagine what Bruins fans thought with their boys off for 11. A lot of the things said for the Sharks series could be repeated here. The Big Bad Bruins, with their previous Cup experience, versus the scrappy underdog Blues who ought to just be happy to be here. A shot at another Cup for Chara, who may well be near the end of the line. And didn’t the Bruins just sweep out the last batch of plucky underdogs who tried this shtick?
If anything, Game 1 had the feel of a regular season game to me, regardless of all the pomp and circumstance. Neither team seemed terribly sharp after their respective time off, which didn’t help matters. Give up four unanswered goals to lose 4-2? It’s a thing. We’ll see about next game.
The overtime period of Game 2 is why I still stick by the description of the Blues as a Jekyll and Hyde team. They had their off moments for large stretches of Game 1, and some more in Game 2, and then, Mr. Hyde came out in his Blues jersey in the third period and started imposing his will, culminating in Gunnarsson’s overtime winner.
So, on to Game 3. Oh. Right. Game 3. What’ll it be this time? Another blowout loss like the Jets series? A weird goal late that even the goal-scorer didn’t realize was in like the Stars series? Some ref-related oddity like the hand pass in the Sharks series? I was seated in front of a man and two young boys who’d made the trip from Boston for the game. With the Blues down 5-1 after two periods, I turned to have a chat during the intermission. He seemed a bit puzzled, at first, about why I wasn’t more concerned about the score, and the Bruins making the Blues look like a minor league squad. Of course he wouldn’t know, but after some explanation the conversation ended with this: “I don’t know, with this team. The past may not guarantee anything to the future, but it’s still a series with games left to be played.” A 7-2 drubbing in game three. Anybody nervous yet? Because this sure felt like par for the course to me.
Game 4 felt an awful lot like a fait accompli. Rebounding after losses, particularly bad ones, is just what the Blues have taken to doing these playoffs. While I wasn’t looking, my expectations for this team rose substantially, to the point that winning the next game after suffering a laugher of a defeat was not just a possibility, but a likelihood. Still no indicator of the future, but the team that had been left for dead by the turn of the new year had converted a best of seven series into a best of three.
Why, hello nerves. I thought I binned you around the time Binnington took over as the starting goalie. I haven’t heard another Blues fan say it out loud, or write it on Twitter or some forum, but if I’m the only Blues fan who figured that the most Blues thing ever would be to drop Game 5 and have a chance to watch the Bruins celebrate with the Cup on the Blues home ice with the jumbotron hacked to play the Orr goal on endless loop, I’ll eat one of the hats I bought after the Schwartz hat trick back in round one. In a long series of moments that just felt right, Jordan Binnington playing his best game of the postseason on the night my Blues Fandom PTSD awoke from months of hibernation is the cap of the sequence… At least for now.
So, now what? Two more chances to win one more game, with everything before us, or nothing before us. Are we all going direct to Heaven, or are we all going direct the other way? I know enough only to know that I can’t say, but when it comes to this season, I’ve seen this team at its best, and I’ve seen this team at its worst.
“Let’s go win a Cup.”